Imagine that it is not the winter of the year 2016; instead imagine that it’s the spring of the year 1521. Imagine that you’re not in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; instead imagine that you’re in Worms (“Vorms”), Germany. Imagine that you’ve not received a summons to stand before a local magistrate and defend yourself against a speeding ticket; instead imagine that you’ve received a summons to stand before the Emperor Charles V and the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. (no jokes about a diet of worms)
How’s your imagination doing so far? Now imagine that you’re not charged with ignoring a posted speed limit; instead imagine that you’re charged with ignoring the doctrine and dic-tates of the leaders of the empire, the papacy, and his holiness, the Pope himself. And worse still, you’re charged with teaching others to do the same. Consequently, imagine, if you can, that you’re not facing a fine and losing three or four points charged against your driver’s license. No, you are facing the very real likelihood that you will lose your life.
In the year 1521 Martin Luther is the Roman Catholic monk and professor of theology who finds himself standing before the Diet of Worms. He is not surprised. For the last three and a half years – ever since he posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the church at Wittenberg (“Vittenbaerg”) – Luther had found himself on proverbial “thin ice” with Rome. He had criticized Rome’s practice of selling indulgences that would purchase papal pardons that were equal to God’s. More than that, Luther condemned the idea that these indulgences could buy absolution for the sins of the poor souls still locked up in purgatory.
For a time the Catholic Church had tolerated Luther and his heresies, but by now, April 18, 1521, the powers that be have had more than enough from this young upstart monk. So he is warned one final time and told to recant his positions and his statements or face the wrath of Rome. Luther’s response is humble and courageous; it is brilliant and beautiful, and it has served as a model for countless Christians ever since. He said…
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract any-thing, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do other-wise, here I stand. May God help me! Amen.”
Luther should have been executed for that, but God chose to save him. He was rescued by Frederick of Saxony and protected in Wartburg (“Voortburg”) Castle. In the years that fol-lowed, Luther became one of the most important and influential voices of the Reformation.
Fifteen hundred years before Luther stood in front of the Diet of Worms and defended the truth, a young man named Stephen found himself standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. He too was defending the truth. The simple fact of the matter is that both men were on trial for their lives. But where Luther had escaped that fate, Stephen would not.
Yet God had a sovereign purpose and clear plan for both men. They would both glorify Him in wondrous and marvelous ways. As we approach this morning’s passage, I would ask you to keep two things in mind. Both of them have been subjects of our studies in the past, and both of them will be again. Here is the first…
John 15:20b (Jesus speaking)
20b “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”
2 Timothy 3:12 (Paul speaking)
12 And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
Here is the second thing to keep in mind as we stand with Stephen this morning.
Colossians 4:5-6 (Paul again)
5 Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.
6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.
1 Peter 3:15 (Peter speaking)
15 …sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a de-fense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you…
As Christians we are called to defend the faith; and when we do, we are told to expect to be persecuted for it. So this morning I would ask you to consider how those truths applied to Stephen in the first century, how they applied to Luther in the sixteenth century, and how they apply to you and me in the twenty-first century.
For the last two weeks we’ve been taking a journey through the history of Israel as presented by Stephen before his accusers in the Jewish Council. When the high priest commanded him to plead guilty or innocent to the charges of blasphemy, he gave them a history lesson.
Stephen told them how Abraham believed God and put his faith in Him. As a result of that faith, Abraham was saved. “Then Abraham believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).” Stephen’s point was that despite what his accusers said, they did not believe as Abraham did.
Then Stephen told the Jewish leaders how Joseph’s life and actions were a clear prophecy of Christ’s.
But just as the Patriarchs of Israel had rejected Joseph and left him for dead, so too had the Sanhedrin rejected Jesus and killed Him. “Then (Joseph’s) brothers said to him, ‘Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?’ So they hated him even more (Genesis 37:8)…”
Stephen told the Council how the life of Moses paralleled the life of Christ. He reminded them how their people had rejected Moses the first time he came to them, and he reminded them that Israel refused to listen to Moses when he said, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him (Deuteronomy 18:15).” This is what Stephen told the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:37. It was one more clear and obvious reference to Christ, but his accusers wanted to hear none of it.
That brings us to where we left off last Sunday morning. In today’s text in Acts 7 we’ll hear Stephen continue his indictment of Israel’s sin and her rebellion against God. Will his words convince anyone to humble himself before God and repent? No, they certainly won’t. On the contrary, Stephen’s words will enrage them, and driven by blind fury, they will stone him to death. But first, he will tell the religious leaders of Israel everything God intends for them to hear. They are there to condemn him, but Stephen will condemn them.
We’ll pick up the narrative while Stephen is still speaking about Moses.
38 “This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you.
39 “And our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt,
40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.’
41 “And at that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.
42 “But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel?
43 ‘You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rom-pha, the images which you made to worship them. I also will remove you be-yond Babylon.’
44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen.
45 “And having received it in their turn, our fathers brought it in with Joshua upon dispossessing the nations whom God drove out before our fathers, until the time of David.
46 “And David found favor in God’s sight, and asked that he might find a dwell-ing place for the God of Jacob.
47 “But it was Solomon who built a house for Him.
In vv. 38-43 Stephen makes the transition from Israel’s rejection of Moses to the nation’s rejection of God’s Law. Just so there is no confusion – Moses received the Law from God, but angels were involved in the process. The details of their involvement are not revealed, but there are other Scriptures that speak of God’s use of His holy messengers. Stephen will refer to that again in v. 53. Hebrews also tells us that angels were involved in the giving of the Law. Hebrews 2:2 says, “For…the word (was) spoken through angels…”
Stephen says Moses passed the oracles of God on to Israel. “Oracles” is translated from the Greek “lŏgiŏn,” which essentially means “the declarations of God.” Acts 7:38 says they’re “living oracles.” If the idea that the Word of God is living sounds familiar, it should.
12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit,
of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
But in Acts 7:39-40 Stephen tells the Council that their fathers disobeyed God’s Word, repu-diated Moses’ leadership, and actually wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. For one thing the people were not only sick of Moses’ leadership, they were also sick of God’s food, the manna that He was providing for them as they wandered in the wilderness.
Numbers 11:4b-6 (they whined…)
4b “Who will give us meat to eat?
5 “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,
6 but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” (…leeks and onions and garlic?)
There’s a lesson here for us. Since you came to saving faith in Christ, you’ve been set free from slavery to sin. Now you are one of His followers (a disciple). Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:31b-32).”
As a disciple of Christ, are there are places you don’t go anymore? Are there things you don’t do anymore? Are there things you don’t say, actions you don’t take, even certain people you don’t see, and even thoughts you don’t have anymore – at least not as much as you once did? In short, the life you once lived is gone. You are no longer enslaved to it.
So why would you want your back bent under the crushing weight of that yoke of sin again?
The nation of Israel had been set free from slavery in Egypt, but they wanted to go back to it. Why would they? For free fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic? Really? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had revealed Himself to them, but in Acts 7:41-43 Ste-phen reminds his accusers that their fathers would rather have the pagan gods of Egypt and Babylon – gods like Moloch to whom children were sacrificed. So they made their idols.
In Acts 7:44-50 Stephen addresses the last of the accusations against him, that of blasphemy against the temple. Back in Acts 6:13-14 false witnesses had said, “…he speaks against this holy place…” and, “…we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place…” His point is that neither the tabernacle in the desert, nor Solomon’s temple, nor Zerubbabel’s temple, nor the one they were standing in, that had been built by Herod, were permanent. They were all temporary. They had all been built with human hands.
48 “However, the Most High (God) does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet (Isaiah) says:
49 “Heaven is My throne, and earth is the footstool of My feet; what kind of house will you build for Me?’ says the Lord; ‘Or what place is there for My
50 ‘Was it not My hand which made all these things?’
Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 and drives home the truth once again that he is not guilty of blasphemy; they are. God could not be contained in the temple. The temple merely symbol-ized His presence among His people. “What kind of house will you build for Me, indeed!”
God’s man Stephen, falsely accused of blasphemy, has made his case. He has defended him-self; he has turned each and every accusation against him a full hundred and eighty degrees around on his accusers, and now he will apply the final blow.
51 “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are al-ways resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.
52 “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become;
53 you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”
This is the end of Stephen’s history lesson; “the coup de grace.” He says that they are their father’s sons. “You are just like them!” Calling them “stiff-necked” (obstinate) is what God repeatedly called the sons of Israel in Exodus 32-33 after they had rejected Moses, built their golden calf, and worshipped it. Calling them “uncircumcised in heart and ears” is what God said about the sons of Israel in Leviticus 26:41 when they refused to confess their sin.
“…uncircumcised in heart” is the ultimate condemnation.
It’s a blow to everything their egos and pride hold dear. Why? Because it means that their sins have never been forgiven. It means that they aren’t God’s friends; they are His enemies. Stephen tells them that they are standing against the Holy Spirit, just like their forefathers had stood against Him.
It didn’t matter whether God sent Joseph or Moses. It didn’t matter which one of the OT prophets God sent. The sons of Israel persecuted and killed them. Jesus had already said that to these very men who are accusing Stephen.
47 “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them.
48 “Consequently, you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs.
49 For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute,
50 in order that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation,
51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you it shall be charged against this gener-
ation.’” (back to Acts 7)
In Acts 7:52 Stephen says that his accusers killed the last of the prophets who had announced the coming of the Jesus, the Messiah, the Righteous One. And not only had they rejected Him, they had murdered Him. Finally, in v. 53, Stephen delivers the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” He says, and I paraphrase, “God gave you the Law; the Law that was deli-vered by angels; the Law that identified Jesus and pointed you to Him. But you disobeyed it; you didn’t keep it.”
With that Stephen has denounced the entire leadership of the Jewish people. They have rejected Moses and God’s Law. They have rejected the prophets and God’s message. Now they have rejected Christ and God’s salvation. Those who claimed to be the most righteous, the most perfect, the most holy, are in reality, the most spiritually dead, and the most lost. They are the blasphemers, not Stephen. What follows is nothing short of an uncontrollable rage that is fed and driven by utter and complete spiritual blindness.
54 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnash-ing their teeth at him.
55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God;
56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man stand-ing at the right hand of God.”
57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse.
58 And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”
60 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And having said this, he fell asleep.
It’s not easy to convey the intensity of the fury Stephen’s indictment has brought out of the men of the Sanhedrin. One commentator says they were “seething with anger.” Defining one of the English words in v. 54 might help to explain it. The word “cut” is translated from the Greek “diapriō,” which literally means to saw into two parts. The men of the Sanhedrin had “come apart.” They were beside themselves with rage.
Their hatred for Stephen and the things he has said about them expresses itself in the gnash-ing of their teeth. There is coming a day – the Great Tribulation – when another generation of men who hate God and His Word, and who refuse to repent, will do the same thing.
10 And the fifth angel poured out his bowl upon the throne of the beast; and his kingdom became darkened, and they gnawed their tongues because of pain,
11 and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds.
Jesus spoke of another place where gnashing of teeth described the agony that awaits those who will one day find themselves there.
41 “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness,
42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weep-ing and gnashing of teeth.”
Why won’t they listen? Peter had told the men of the Sanhedrin the truth in Acts 4. Peter and John had both told them the truth in Acts 5. Now, in Acts 7, Stephen has told them the truth. But each time they’ve heard it, they’ve only hardened their hearts against it.
Listen, the gospel that saves the soul of the repentant
is the same gospel that condemns the soul of the unrepentant.
As these unrepentant men gnash their teeth at Stephen, it’s merely a preview of what they will be doing in hell, when they are cast into the lake of fire.
But now look at Acts 7:55. Stephen is calm; he is at peace; he is “full of the Holy Spirit.”
He knows what Jesus has said…
11 “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense, or what you should say;
12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
(back to Acts 7) In vv. 55-56 Stephen has become oblivious to the chaotic storm that is now raging around him. His attention is elsewhere. He’s already seeing the place he’s about to enter, and he’s already seeing the Son of Man rising up to welcome him into His presence. And he says so. In v. 57 Stephen’s claim to be seeing into heaven, and using the messianic title for Jesus, “the Son of Man,” serves to intensify the rage against him. “You see God? You see God?” It’s more than they can take. They cover their ears and rush upon him. What has become of the honor and dignity of Israel’s highest court?
Let me take a moment to address a question that has confused some people. In v. 56 it says Jesus is standing at the right hand of God. But the NT often says Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God. This isn’t a contradiction! When He ascended to heaven and sat down at God’s right hand, it symbolized His finished work of redemption. (When Jesus was on the cross He said, “It is finished.”) But here He stands up to welcome Stephen. Jesus standing up to minister symbolizes His ministry of intercession as our Great High Priest.
And so, we come to vv. 58-59. They had to drive Stephen outside of the walls of Jerusalem before they could kill him. After all, it was unlawful to stone some-one in the city, and we all know how concerned the members of the Council were about obeying the Mosaic Law.
Like a scene from some comic tragedy, these honorable and dignified leaders of Israel de-generate into a roaring mob. They don’t take the time to pass a guilty verdict and pronounce the sentence of death. They want Stephen dead NOW! But don’t miss this: They were wil-ling to commit the murder of an innocent man, but they didn’t want any of his blood to spat-ter their robes. So they had one of the younger members, Saul of Tarsus, take care of their robes while they carried out Stephen’s murder. By v. 59 Stephen in the stoning pit.
The Mishna is the oldest book of rabbinic literature and oral traditions of Israel. In fact, it is often called the “Oral Torah.” Here, from the Mishna, is the basic instruction for carrying out capital punishment by stoning…
“The stoning place was (a pit) two heights of a man. One of the witnesses pushed him on his thighs (that he should fall with the back to the surface), but if he fell face down, he had to be turned over. If he died from the effects of the first fall, nothing more was to be done. If not, the second witness took a stone and thrust it against his heart. If he died, nothing more was to be done; but if not, all who were standing by had to throw stones on him. Thus the hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him, to put him to death,
and the hand of all the people at the last.”
Who were the witnesses against Stephen? Acts 6:13 tells us they were “false witnesses.” They were liars! The Sanhedrin had deliberately used witnesses they knew were liars. And now, in Acts 7:59, the Mishna says that these very same liars are the ones who would push Stephen into the pit and begin the process of crushing the life out of him. How despicable are these Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, lawyers, and judges? They will do anything to main-tain their power and authority… just as long as they don’t get their robes dirty.
As Stephen is being stoned he apparently gathers the last of his physical strength and rises to his feet. In v. 59 we’re told, “…he called upon the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’” With this we can’t help but be reminded of the last of the seven things Jesus’ said from the cross, can we? “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit (Luke 23:46).”
Then in Acts 7:60, Stephen falls to his knees, “…crie(s) out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’” With this we’re reminded of the first of the seven things Jesus’ said from the cross. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).” And it’s over! Finally, mercifully, Stephen passes into the presence of Jesus.
But the Bible does not say that he died; it says he “fell asleep.” Yes, “falling asleep” in the Scriptures is a euphemism for death. We understand that Stephen died under the weight of the stones. But as that was happening he entered into the presence of Jesus. The very words “falling asleep” carry with them a tranquility and serenity that no dying unbeliever will ever know. Only a Christian can pass from this world like that. Listen to John MacArthur…
“Peacefully, calmly he slipped into the presence of his Lord. Unquestionably, ‘His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave… enter into the joy of your master (Matthew 25:21).”’ Sleep is a lovely way to describe the death of a believer. It is painless and temporary and takes one from the experience of weariness, work, and consciousness of all the problems of life to the freshness of a new day.”
Two weeks ago we started on a journey with Stephen as he defended himself against false charges of blasphemy. In the process he convicted his accusers of their sin of blasphemy against God. He was able to do that so effectively because he knew and understood God’s Word. Stephen defended the faith and presented the gospel. Then he went home.
That’s exactly what you and I are called to do. Stephen fell asleep and went home. Some-day each one of us will pass from this life. It is my prayer that every one of you comes to saving faith in Christ, so when that day arrives, you will not die; you will just “fall asleep” and go home to Jesus, where you will see Him face-to-face, and you will hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful slave… enter into the joy of your master.”
~ Pray ~